Virat Kohli (left) and Anil Kumble © AFP
Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble.. all is not well © AFP

“My partnership with Kumble is a match made in heaven,” said Ravichandran Ashwin after scripting the win against New Zealand at Kanpur (India’s 500th Test) at the start of the 2016-17 season.

Despite the volume of Ashwin’s comment it still seems an understatement. Under Kumble’s coaching, Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja went on to form one of the most lethal combinations in the history of Indian cricket. Not many in the world know more about the art of spin bowling than Kumble. Indian cricket was to only benefit.

While Jadeja strode his way to become the top-ranked bowler in Test cricket, Ashwin broke Dale Steyn’s record for most Test wickets in a season — and went on to scale heights hitherto unknown for an Indian spinner. India reclaimed the Test supremacy crown and went on to retain it. The season ended with truckloads of positives. The team seemed to be a family so happy that it could well have been from a Sooraj Barjatya.

Or was it?

India’s glorious 2016-17 season came to a closure after the Dharamsala Test win at end of March. A month-and-half’s gruelling IPL followed. For some time India’s participation in the Champions Trophy looked unsure; then, as things panned out, reports suddenly emerged that Indian cricketers feel ‘intimidated’ by Kumble’s approach.

ESPNCricinfo quotes a BCCI official: “Kumble was pushing hard. The bulk of them [injuries] are non-cricketing injuries. One of the players was stressed out. So the team is not a happy lot.”

Reports have further surfaced that Kumble has been running the team like a ‘headmaster’.

Greg Chappell? Does the name ring a bell?

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A glorious batch of gentlemen from 2000s, they say. Indian cricket’s folklore under Sourav Ganguly’s reign had inspired a generation. Ganguly continues receiving accolades for inspirational leadership, Rahul Dravid for being his trusted lieutenant, VVS Laxman for being the lifeguard and Sachin Tendulkar for simply being Sachin Tendulkar. There was a fifth gentleman, the jigsaw piece that completed the ‘Fab Five’.

It’s a different story that no cricketer has won India as many Tests as Kumble. Limited talent. Muffled aggression. Kumble was the relentless workhorse India needed. There were times a younger Harbhajan Singh got precedence. A man of Kumble’s stature humbly swallowed the snub, continued mentoring the young guns and his competitors, and yet competed for the slot that he deserved. It was a fact that Ganguly himself has often verified.

Kumble was always a leader of men. And in official capacity, when the coveted cloak fell upon him, he guided the side through he ugly Sydney turmoil in 2008. Kumble displayed a character reminiscent to the legendary Bill Woodfull.

So how can the man with zillions of positives in the weighing balance suddenly turn vicious for Indian cricket?

Cut to present. BCCI’s Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC) now consists of three men from that era: Ganguly, Tendulkar and Laxman were entrusted with the responsibility of selecting the head coach for the national side. The trio overlooked the goods achieved under Ravi Shastri and appointed Kumble for the job.

With Dravid handling the role of mentoring the younger national prospects, Kumble in charge of the senior side, and men of Ganguly, Tendulkar and Laxman’s stature in the CAC, Indian cricket seemed in safe hands with unification of ‘Fab Five’.

A major faction was pleased. There were murmurs that three friends went on to favour another friend. But the names involved here cannot be clubbed with grapevines.

A year on…

Things are back to step zero. BCCI is back to coach hunting. Kumble’s contract expires after the Champions Trophy. An extension should have been mere formality. Successful coaches have historically had extensions of contracts, but the unsuspecting CoA are entrusted again with the job of selecting the suitable candidate for coaching India.

Why? Let us, for once, put emotions aside and check Kumble’s record:

Kumble’s tenure as India’s head coach:

-          Won Test series in West Indies: 2-0

-          Lost the T20I series against West Indies in Florida: 0-1

-          Whitewashed New Zealand at home 3-0 to climb to the No. 1 spot in ICC Test Rankings

-          Beat England 4-0 at home to complete first Test series win against them in eight years

-          Beat England 2-1 at home in ODIs

-          Beat England 2-1 at home in T20Is

-          Reclaimed Border-Gavaskar Trophy by beating Australia 2-1 at home

Kumble is yet to be tested abroad in more challenging conditions — in South Africa, England or Australia, for example. His numbers inflate due to the success India have had at home. But then, one can only judge someone on certain defined parameters.

Gary Kirsten’s legacy as India’s coach is majorly defined by the World Cup 2011 victory. But wasn’t that at home? Wasn’t that played under conditions where India were favourites?

More importantly, has Kumble been given a run away from home to check how he performed?

Who said what: 

Before the reports of Kohli-Kumble tiff:

BCCI: Anil’s contract concludes with the Champions Trophy, so even if his contract has to be renewed/extended, the process has to be followed.

Bishan Singh Bedi to Sportskeeda: Can anybody challenge, as of now, the way Anil Kumble’s contributed? His record has been fantastic, both as a player and as a coach in one year. The timing is bloody shallow. They could have done it during the IPL. Why didn’t they do it then? Now that the team has landed there, you are to create confusion for no prime reason. This is ridiculous.

They don’t seem to learn from their errors and blunders. Now India is going to defend the Champions Trophy and you create a cloud of uncertainty for no particular reason. I would have thought that it is Kumble’s prerogative to decide whether he wants to continue or not.

Gopal Sankaranarayanan, Secretary of Lodha Committee, to The Times of India: It’s extremely peculiar that administrators, who have to comply with the Supreme Court judgment, can disobey and continue in office while insisting that a silly little contract they have come up with has to be adhered to by coaches and cricketers. Clearly a different law applies for the lawless.

Kumble does not deserve this kind of treatment. This isn’t the right way to treat your national coach. One year coaching tenure is a ludicrous thing to do. For a national coach, year-to-year appointment isn’t the way forward. Who will come for a one-year tenure?

You can see that this is done deliberately by the board officials. You can’t be giving a piece meal to your national coach. The next contract shouldn’t be for a year.

Kumble has stood up for the players and pointed out that they don’t get a penny from the ICC while it all goes into unaccounted pockets. Clearly people are unhappy with that.

A victim for not being ‘yes-man’?

Reports suggest that BCCI launched the mission of coach hunt based on the unhappy Indian players’ feedback on Kumble. Things have reportedly gone so bizarre that Kohli had a word with Ganguly, who is in England for commentary assignment, to discuss the Kumble issue after India’s warm-up game against New Zealand.

Even till the last series, Kohli and Kumble had put up a united front. So what suddenly happened?

Is the Indian board used to yes-men? Shastri falls in that category. Kumble does not.

So, where did the legend possibly over-step?

- Reports suggest that BCCI are unhappy with Kumble’s proximity with the Supreme Court-appointed CoA. Kumble had directly approached CoA chief Vinod Rai over player and coaching staff salaries. CoA asking Kumble for recommendations on players and coaching staff salaries has not gone well with BCCI.

- One of the reasons behind Kumble’s negotiations was the fact that the India team’s coaching job also comes with its limits. The coach won’t have IPL associations or have the liberty to write columns. The earning opportunity limits and therefore the demand is for a sum that suits the position.

- The buzz is about Kumble wanting a vote in the selection panel. It is a half-baked truth without much evidence. Kumble’s demands are rather logical. Kumble insists the head coach should have a presence in selection meetings irrespective of the fact he has a voting power or not.

- Kumble has stressed on better communication with his players. Being a member of the selection meeting is bound to help the coach provide the players with a reality check. A faction hints that Kumble’s motive behind this lies in pocketing the additional INR 60 lakhs a selector earns. The thought itself is absurd considering his multi-crore salary.

- BCCI and ICC continue to be at loggerheads regarding revenue sharing. The tiff threatened India’s participation in Champions Trophy. Tendulkar and Dravid, among other luminaries, voiced in favour of India’s participation in the mega event. Kumble, too, went on record to voice his opinion and wrote to the board on the same. However, Kumble taking a stand while being the head coach did not go well with BCCI.

- A BCCI senior official expressed his displeasure to The Hindustan Times: “It is the institution which decides, and not one individual. Kumble writing to the Board about his decision of wanting to play in the Champions Trophy was uncalled for. He had no business in doing this.”

Another official added in fury, “Kumble is going to be on a sticky wicket for this act once the Board members take control of BCCI. It is just a matter of time.”

So is it time for the BCCI top brass to play their free-hit?

Kohli matters

Despite their fondness for Kumble, CAC and CoA find themselves in an awkward position. If players lose confidence on coach, the best the bodies can do is arrange for truce.

Kohli has reportedly fallen out. Kumble may be head coach, but it is eventually Kohli’s team. Having said so, if the reports of tiff are to be true, should players be given enough power to dictate? Again, a coach necessarily does not have to make himself the most likeable character. His job is to get his players prepared.

Does it work in the Indian system? That is the question. Ganguly, a key decision maker in CAC, knows it well. He has been through the Chappell phase. Coaches who worked on amicability and worked behind the scenes like John Wright and Kirsten have made impressions.

Several reports suggest that the tension between Kumble and Kohli brewed up during the Australia Test series over the selection of Kuldeep Yadav. Kumble wanted Kuldeep for the third Test but Kohli did not. Kohli’s injury in the final Test at Dharamsala apparently saw Kumble have his way to the former’s dismay. In hindsight it proved to be a good decision as Kuldeep, with his four-for, swung the game in India’s favour on Day One.

The doubt

The doubt lingers. Is it really a tiff between Kohli’s men and Kumble? Or it is all a part of a big plan to side-line or payback to the fearless entity? Possibilities are immense. Had all functionaries in BCCI been saints, there would have been no Lodha Panel or CoA in the first place.

The timing of the entire saga is another issue. Why had all parties turned their snooze mode on during IPL? Is the hullaballoo worth ahead of a tournament like Champions Trophy where India are defending their title?

Adversities have hit Team India in the past ahead of Champions Trophy. India did well to come out of them in 2000, 2002 and 2013. The desire of innocent fans will remain the same.

Coming to the saga, the issue pertains some of the greatest names of Indian cricket. The subject could have been handled with grace and tact. What seemed like a ‘match made in heaven’ is unfortunately being dragged to hell, thanks to bloated egos.